10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Publishing Service

e-publishing, e-books, e-reading, self-publishing

Note from Jane: I updated this post on Nov. 14, 2014.

On Dec. 11, I’m offering a 90-minute live, online class that delves deeper into the details of DIY e-book publishing. Click here to find out more.


With new services continually appearing on the market that promise to help writers self-publish or distribute their e-books, it’s imperative that you educate yourself about how these services typically operate and understand the fine print of any new service before deciding to commit.

Note that when I discuss “services,” they typically fall into 2 categories:

  • Single-channel, retailer-driven services (e.g., Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, Apple iBookstore)
  • E-book distribution services that may include some kind of formatting and conversion service; sometimes these services also act as retailers. BookBaby and Smashwords are two of the most well-known services.
  • … and there are also other types of services offered by consultants, partnership-style publishers, and literary agents.

Here are 10 questions you must ask of any new service you consider using.

1. Is the service exclusive or nonexclusive?

E-publishing services marketed directly to authors almost always operate on a nonexclusive basis. That means you can use their service to sell your e-book while also selling your e-book anywhere else you like (or using any other service).

There are two notable exceptions right now:

  • Amazon’s Kindle Select. Amazon asks for a 3-month exclusive if you join the Kindle Select program (which allows your book to be lent out through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library). If you want to read more about this option, read bestselling author CJ Lyons’ perspective. 
  • E-books created with Apple’s iBooks Author tool (available only to Mac users). However, exclusivity is only demanded for the specific edition created through Apple’s software. It doesn’t apply to any edition of that e-book formatted outside of the iBooks Author tool and distributed elsewhere. This means you will end up having two different editions available, one of which can only ever be sold through the iBookstore.

2. If it’s exclusive, what’s the term of the contract?

For example, with KDP Select, the term is 90 days. This is acceptable for most authors.

However, if you’re working with an agent to publish e-book (or digital-only publishers), you will likely be asked to sign a contract that has a longer term. This is simply to ensure that, after your e-book files are prepared, your cover designed, and all ducks put in a row, that you don’t suddenly change your mind and take your e-book elsewhere. The agent or publishing partner needs to be confident of recouping their initial outlay.

I recommend you not commit for longer than 1 or 2 years due to how fast the market conditions can change for e-books.

3. Do you control the price?

While some services may have reasonable pricing restrictions (e.g, not allowing you to price below 99 cents), standard practice is to give the author complete control over pricing.

Caveat: Most e-book retailers mandate that you not offer more favorable pricing anywhere else (whether at another retailer or from your own site). Amazon in particular is known for carefully policing this and will automatically lower the price of your e-book if they find you pricing it lower somewhere else. (Some authors use this to their advantage and make their e-book available for free elsewhere so Amazon will then push the price of the Kindle edition to free.)

4. What’s the upfront fee and/or how is the royalty calculated?

While different services have different models, the fees should be transparent and upfront. For example:

  • Services such as Amazon KDP, Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press and Apple’s iBookstore are all free to use. They make their money by taking a cut of your sales. Usually you earn 60-70% of your list price (assuming you price in the range they specify).
  • Smashwords is free to use and distributes to all major e-book retailers except Amazon. Smashwords pays you 85% of your list price on sales directly through the Smashwords site, minus PayPal transaction fees. They pay you approx. 60% of your list price on sales through retailers. (In other words, they take 10% after the retailer takes their cut.)
  • BookBaby allows you to decide what kind of financial arrangement you prefer, based on the level of service you need. You can (a) pay $0 upfront, get ebook formatting/conversion, and give them a percentage of your sales (similar to Smashwords), or (b) you can pay a flat fee up front and keep 100% of your net sales if you’re able to provide ready-to-go ebook files.

Always read the fine print in these cases. For instance, if you price your book very low (99 cents), and there’s a 25-cent transaction fee for each of your sales, you’ve just cut into your profits even if you’re earning 70% or 80% of list. Another example: Amazon charges a nominal fee for file delivery—but only on the 70% royalty rate— that can cut into your profits if your ebook file is large.

5. Are there hidden fees or charges?

You can end up paying more than standard rates for conversion/formatting if your book runs very long, if you have an inconvenient file format that needs extra work (common with PDFs), if you have a lot of chart/table/image formatting, and so on. If your work has any kind of “special needs,” expect a service to charge you more. (The best services, such as BookBaby, are very specific about what these costs will be.)

6. What file formats do they accept?

This is critical to know upfront because it usually determines (1) whether or not you can use the service in the first place and (2) how much you’ll get charged for formatting and conversion if that’s a service you need.

A few things to know:

  • Microsoft Word (or any text file) is commonly accepted. However: If you’re publishing direct to Kindle or Nook (or use Smashwords, which is automated too), unless you “unformat” your Word document, it will look like crap on an e-reading device when automatically converted to an e-book format. Most retailer’s e-publishing services have extensive guidelines, preview programs, and other ways of ensuring your work looks OK before your e-book goes live.
  • EPUB is the industry standard e-book file format. If you want to create your own EPUB file, see the end of this post for recommendations.
  • Many conversion/formatting services typically offer you EPUB and MOBI files since that covers you on Amazon and just about any other e-book retailer.
  • PDF is one of the most difficult file formats to convert to EPUB. Expect to pay.

7. Who owns the e-book files after they are created?

It is ideal if you own the e-book files, and that is usually the case when you pay out of pocket for conversion and formatting services. In the case of some free services, such as Smashwords, you do not. (Why so? When you upload your Word document to Smashwords—the only format accepted—it goes through their “meatgrinder” conversion process to create a variety of e-book files. You then have access to those e-book files, but you’re not supposed to turn around and sell them through other services.)

8. Are DRM protections or proprietary formats involved?

DRM stands for digital rights management. DRM is supposed to prevent piracy, or illegal copying and distribution of your e-book after is sold. However, I agree with those who argue that DRM is not reader- or consumer-friendly, and should not be used. The industry standard e-book format, EPUB, does not use DRM.

There are only 2 areas where you’re likely to run into a proprietary format or DRM.

  • Amazon Kindle uses a proprietary format with DRM. If you use the Kindle Direct Publishing program to publish your e-book, no matter what type of file you upload, they will automatically convert it to their proprietary, DRM-locked format. However, because their service is not exclusive, you can always make your e-book available in other formats through other services, without restriction.
  • The Apple iBooks Author tool creates e-books in a proprietary format. No other device aside from an iPad or iPhone can view an e-book created by the Apple iBooks Author tool.

9. Where is your e-book distributed?

If you’re using a service like Amazon KPD, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press, the answer is pretty simple: Your e-book is distributed only through those specific retailers. When you use a multiple-channel e-book distribution service (such as Smashwords or BookBaby), then the mix of retailers they reach will vary. At minimum, you want to reach Kindle & Nook, since they currently make up about 70–80% of all e-book sales, followed by Apple iBookstore, Kobo (essential for Canadians), and Google Play.

One common strategy among authors is to use Amazon Kindle Direct combined with Smashwords (which distributes to all major e-book retailers except Kindle). You can probably reach 95%+ of your market with that approach, if not 100%.

10. Can you make changes to your e-book after it goes on sale?

If you’re working directly with retailers (e.g., Amazon and Barnes & Noble), you can upload new and revised files as often as you like—they don’t care. Same goes with Smashwords. However, if you’re using a multiple-channel distributor other than Smashwords, you will likely have to pay fees to make changes.

Single-channel services (retailers) I recommend

Distribution services I recommend

E-book creation tools I recommend

Still have questions? Leave a comment.
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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
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123 Comments

  1. Thanks for going over this. I love that you take your time to research this stuff. I find it all a bit baffling so I tend to stay with the decisions we’ve already made. (Love  Smashwords, btw)

    As an aside, We use Atlantis Word Processor to create our ePub for our store – in case anyone’s interested. Atlantis is a robust program and is $35. The ePub version is very popular. (Go to Save Special, eBook, and wha la, you have an ePub.) I’m not Mac-friendly so you’d have to ask someone else if it works on Macs.

  2. You can also publish a book on the internet. With the line between eReaders and tablet computers blurring it won’t be long until online books are just as accessible as eBooks.

    As an example of online publishing, Amie Kweon’s site Lacuna Books (http://lacunabooks.com/) is a nice site that publishes in HTML and EPUB. (The site is free to use for both authors and readers.)

  3. Thanks for this very helpful rundown, Jane. Even for those of us watching this e-book scene very closely, the landscape is confusing. 

    I’m curious where a tool like Adobe InDesign might fit into this, since it can output to both PDF and ePUB. I guess the challenge (assuming mastery of InDesign) then becomes distribution?

    • I don’t typically recommend InDesign to authors since I consider it software that no one outside professional publishers/media companies use. But it’s an excellent option for those familiar with it—though you do have to manually modify EPUB files after the InDesign export.

      And of course InDesign couldn’t be any more seamless in its production of PDFs.

      I don’t see why distribution would be a challenge necessarily. You can easily upload EPUB files to Kindle, Nook, and iBookstore.

  4. Thanks for covering this, Jane. I found it very helpful.

    I’m curious about Amazon’s policy on making books free on their site when they find them free on other sites. Do you know if this is a blanket policy of theirs, or have they been known to ignore it, or worse, take down a book from their site because of it?

    • None of the above really applies to them (they should be worrying about all these details for you), though I do recommend you limit the term of the contract and demand royalties that are competitive, which I consider 50%.

  5. Excellent overview. One counterpoint, though PDF to ePub is a more complicated conversion, i think you get a better looking ebook when you send PDF typeset pages to an ebook creator for file conversion. I.e. the chapter headings and any art stay intact.

  6. Thanks for that overview, Jane.  My experience has been much as you outline. After I attended your e-publishing workshop at the Willamette Writers conference last August I got real serious about self-publishing. I used BookBaby for conversion of my first self-published e-book, The Forty Column Castle, which is a 275 page mystery and was easy to format and convert.  Important is to follow BookBaby’s conversion guidelines which is on their web site. BookBaby did a nice job on the cover art,  and the book went live mid-December. I found BookBaby very responsive to email and phone calls on their 800 number.  I was stuck in the printed book world for a long time, but it seemed like overnight my head turned in the direction of digital books, and now I’m hooked.  Thank you, Jane.

  7. Excellent info for authors considering self-e-publishing.
    I have one point to raise – Kindle Direct Publishing now allows authors the option to allow or refuse DRM at the point of uploading a ms.

  8. Great article, it is good to be able to pass on your wisdom and research Jane, it is a jungle out there and there are some wily predators emerging!

    We work with authors from around the world, but a note for UK authors who may be reading this, re. the landscape over here.  Amazon sells more eBooks by quite a long way as you would expect but Barnes and Noble do not feature (yet). 

    Time will tell if Amazon can continue to increase their share and completely dominate sales, but readers will stay loyal to other brands if they make it easy for them to buy eBooks.

    We have seen Apple outsell Amazon for some titles, and not only those with high graphical content as you might expect. Authors who are selling well on the Amazon.co.uk store also seem to  sell well on Waterstones (who only sell to UK customers).  Kobo reported excellent sales of their eReaders over Christmas,  and the partnership with WH Smith is promising. 

    And then there is is the European market to figure out..a whole new world in more ways than one!

  9. Excellent post. I epublished my book through Kindle Direct Publishing last month on my own. Now, I’m trying to format it for CreateSpace so it will go on Amazon as a paper back. I’m also working on a trailer and will be studying Smashwords. I am very happy with the results. This hasn’t cost me a dime. I’ve spent time, but it’s been worth all I’ve learned.

  10. Very informative article, Jane. After trying 25 times to get my previously formatted Word document through Smashword’s Meatgrinder, I finally gave in and used the nuclear option and ran my file through notepad to remove all formatting. With just some minor paragraph and headings formatting it went through fine.

    Hopefully Smashwords will allow direct ePub uploading soon. Their conversion software creates very basic ePubs, but once you save your document with them, it actually shows up in the Apple iBooks store and on B&N in just over a week.

    The Kindle converter automatically adds indented paragraphs to a standard file upload. For fiction this is probably OK. For non-fiction you may want to experiment with different paragraph settings to eliminate the indent.

    Overall, your first experience with eBooks may be a challenge. This article will definitely help you avoid many of the common pitfalls.

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  12. A good post for the basics of how this works.  The reality is the concept of the true “self” published author is flawed.  I believe we all need help and there are a lot of different ways to get that help.  I really like the ACX model for audio books and predict someone will come up with a service like that for eBooks where all the talent and the content providers are brought together in a system.  For more details, we have The ShelfLess Book: The Complete Digital Author coming out on the 26th of this month, detailing our experiences at Who Dares Wins Publishing in building a seven figure indie publishing house in just a couple of years.

    • Totally agree we all need help on some level and there are many ways to get that help. 

      Audio feels like a different animal to me, possibly because doing it professionally is outside the capability of most ordinary authors. The e-publishing scene, on the other hand, is increasingly developing DIY tools that can produce professional results. I see it developing more in line with how blogs/site tools developed. Today, you no longer have to hire a professional webmaster to handle a straightforward site (or to maintain it).

    • Thank you for your post.  Audio books is an area that should be expanded for indie writers.  And I, for one, am interested in reading ‘The Shelfless Book”.  I’ll try to bookmark it somehow. 

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  14. Thanks for the article. I’ve published on smashwords myself, but this has given me a couple of ideas to keep in mind for future publishing. I do have a question though: I published on smashwords but recently I made my book available on amazon, did I screw up?

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  17. Very helpful to a neophyte. I’m using Friesen Press for my first book, and I’m exploring using E-publishing for the next (still in gestation, close to delivery.) Thanks for this information.

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  19. “Smashwords…which distributes to all major e-book retailers except Kindle). You can probably reach 95%+ of your market with that approach, if not 100%.
    Even if you are just aiming at the US market there are myriad smaller ebook stores not served by Smashwords, and internationally far, far more. 

    With B&N exclusive to the US, Amazon forcing overseas customers (non-Kindle countries) to pay a $2 surcharge and blocking sales to many countries, and Apple only reaching about twenty countries, you are missing out on huge potential sales as ereading develops around the world.

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  21. This is such an excellent, comprehensive post!  Re #10: A friend who uses BookBaby says they do charge a fee for corrections–a fairly hefty one.  So people using BookBaby should be especially careful to get their work proofread by a number of readers before going ahead with them.

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  24. Our product is 50% graphics and 50% words.  What is the best way for us to epublish our work.  It was created in PowerPoint with some animation.  Our target audience is Middle School children so the graphics are a vital part of our product.

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  29. Thanks for a great article. I have published with BookBaby (and CreateSpace for print) and have been more or less satisfied. One thing I’m doing differently with my second book is that I’ve purchased my own block of ISBNs. I’m hoping I’ve done this correctly! Figuring it all out as I go.

    Regarding Apple iBooks Author – I’ve been reading about it and every time I read I think I understand but then someone will tell me something and I think I got it all wrong again. After my last round of reading about it, I came to believe that it’s not the *content* that is exclusive to Apple, but rather the … I guess the format? Meaning, I thought that if you created something in Apple iBooks, you could still publish that content elsewhere, but you couldn’t take the specific ePub that was created through their program and use that. From what you’re saying, thought, it sounds like your understanding is that it’s the content itself that must be exclusive – that if I publish through Apple iBooks I can’t publish anywhere else?

    • If you create something in Apple iBooks, you can take it elsewhere, as long as you make it available for free.

      If you create something in Apple iBooks, but CHARGE for it through Apple iBooks, you are not allowed to sell it elsewhere in the .ibooks format. However, I find this a moot point since no one else supports .ibooks. 

      That said, if you were a supernerd, you could convert the book files made with iBooks Author to an EPUB file, and sell it elsewhere, but that’s what Apple is saying you are not allowed to do.

      In short: I didn’t mean to say the content must be exclusive. But the files created by iBooks Author ARE exclusive.

      • I’ve been reading your posts and answers here closely and must ask you to be more careful when speaking about apples and oranges, so to speak, though, admittedly, Apple Computer doesn’t make that easy.

        The only e-books that Apple won’t allow you to sell elsewhere (though you can give them away) are those made using the “iBooks Author” creation engine (not “Apple iBooks” which is the term that you have used repeatedly here). Those files end with the file extension of .ibooks specifically. But the iBooks reader app lets you read, and the iBookstore also accepts (as it always has) regular EPUB files that end with .epub specifically. Those books you ARE allowed to sell anywhere you want.

        And to make things more confusing, iBooks will also display (quite nicely, in fact) “fixed layout” EPUB books, which Apple has long encouraged for picture books, cookbooks, and what used to be called “coffee table” books, etc. (“The History of Surfing” by Matt Warshaw is a great, though expensive, example of one of the latter).

        However, Apple’s fixed layout books only work correctly on the iBooks app. They are also a bit of a bear to make, though you can still do it and Apple will still sell them, and, as I said, any books that end in .epub that you might make for iBooks ARE allowed to be sold elsewhere, whether they work well there or not.

        With the development of iBooks Author, Apple tried to make it easy for anyone to make a fixed layout book and to include all sorts of nifty enhancements if desired: audio files, video, etc. However, they also knew that if an author made a fancy book that worked on iBooks but crashed everywhere else, people would badmouth Apple about making something that didn’t work, even though it wouldn’t be Apple’s fault. So they have eliminated that. They don’t let you sell it somewhere else if it’s made with iBooks Author and ends with the .ibooks file extension. (Presumably, if you give it away for free, people will have a tendency to complain less.)

        However, all that being said: iBooks Author allows you to make truly spectacular e-books, if you are a good enough designer. The fact that they are only viewable on iBooks is, for some people at least (to judge by various comments around the Internet), not something that stops a lot of people from wanting them.

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    • Ah, well—these aren’t publishers. They’re retailers and distributors. As with any independent or self-publishing venture, the author is fully responsible for marketing and promotion.

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  36. Once again, lots of useful content. Bravo, Jane! This will be a file I save for future reference. My book, SLEEPING WITH A WITCH DOCTOR, will be published by Tate Publishers next fall and will be in the dead trees format as well as epub. But the next book, I may go for epub alone. Depends on how much of each format sells this coming year. Thanks again for clarifying several points for me.

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  38. Any opinion on Booklocker’s ebook services. They offer to publish with no contract and no upfront fee. There information appears very transparent to me. Just interested in your assessment.

      • Thanks Jane.  I’ve been trying to absorb as many aspects of ebook publishing as I can, and assessing the options. Is there a single source that is considered a valid Consumer-Reports-type of evaluator of ebook publishers?  Also, considering the learning curve just to procure services, would it be less complicated to simply contract out the various formatting services for the respective e-readers and sell a selection of ebook versions on a no-frills website of one’s own?

        • I’m afraid there isn’t anything like a Consumer Reports, although I always recommend checking SFWA’s Writer Beware site for updates and reports on companies that might be taking advantage of writers.

          As far as whether it’s less complicated to contract stuff out, you might consider using BookBaby. It’s a solid service company run by people who are behind another major service (CDBaby)—they’ll handle conversion and distribution to all the major devices.

          You’ll run into far more difficulty trying to sell ebooks off your own site, plus how will people know about you and find your site? I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re already well-versed in eCommerce.

          • Thanks. It appears that your site is probably the closest thing there is to an objective evaluator of ebook publishing services.  Also, with the technology and business models evolving so rapidly, it seems the only way to truly know how good service will be is to roll the dice and hire one.

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  40. This information is helpful, but as a newbie, with a book in progress that is 80% photographs and little tech knowledge or time to do the eBook self-publishing and marketing myself–I have been looking at PublishGreen.com, but their packages seem really pricey to me.  It would take a lot of book sales just to recoup my investment.  Would I be better off to take the time to learn the process myself or can you recommend a service that offers packages that won’t drain the bank account?  

    • If you have 80% photographs then your ebook file will be significantly larger than a standard text file. Companies like Amazon Kindle charge you for every download sold.

      For a standard novel that’s just a few cents  and nothing to worry about. Sell an ebook for 2.99 and with the 70% “royalty” you’ll collect 2.00, having paid maybe 0.05 for the download.

      For an ebook laden with images, or with video content as is the trend now, that download fee increases dramatically and can run to several dollars per sale, potentially wiping-out the royalties on a low-priced ebook.

    • Mark’s right on the money with his insight, but if you still want to pursue a service in spite of the cut Amazon and others will take, consider iBooks Author or possibly PressBooks as starting points. They both offer DIY easy-to-use interfaces that can incorporate images.

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  42. Thank you for the breakdown in every day terms.  I have been considering publishing my blog to Kindle, but have not been able to find the answers to my questions in the legal jargon of their “terms and conditions” page.

    -author of Simple Observations

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  45. I’ve been extremely pleased with eBookIt.com. This week I will give them my third book to convert and distribute.

    Michael N. Marcus

    — Coming very soon: “499 Important Publishing Tips for a Penny Apiece” (e-book), http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing/499selfpublishingtips.html

    — Newly updated, “Self-Publish Your Book Without Losing Your Shirt: business basics for self-publishing authors,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057273

    — New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0983057249– http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com– http://www.BookFur.com (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html

  46. This is all other worldly to me but i have poems i want to turn into an e-book.will the poems still be my intellectual property once out there in cyberland,its such a minefield that i keep resiting doing it.And what about copyright ?

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  48. Thanks for the information. It is very helpful. I am a teacher and my question is that I want to move a textbook I wrote to ebook with form fill so that students can answer the questions in a form fill, click print and then have their assignment to turn in.  What software do I use or can Smashwords do this for me.
    Thanks, KarenK

  49. What a great, concise summary of issues faced by people looking into the option of epublishing. Have you come across LeanPub yet? http://www.leanpub.com. They’re very straightforward about their royalty rates, distribution, etc. Plus they have two really innovative features: authors can continue to develop a book after it’s published (readers who’ve bought a copy get a free update), and the flexible pricing model (readers can choose to pay a price, above a minimum set by the author.) I’ve found working with them a really exciting experience–and plenty of people have paid more than I asked for my first book!

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